Jan 13, 2024 - Economy

Why zero tolerance for airline safety lapses doesn’t extend to other industries

Illustration of a plane in a bubble

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Last Friday, January 5, the day a door plug flew off an Alaska Airlines airplane in mid-flight, was a day in which approximately 120 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes. Roughly 136 died from opioids. Perhaps 150 died as hospital inpatients due to preventable medical errors. About 230 died of COVID-19. And zero died in aircraft accidents.

Why it matters: Air travel is the one part of American daily life where the general public has zero tolerance for any kind of safety lapse.

  • As we saw so vividly, the aviation industry is far from perfect in that regard. But it's still astonishingly good.

Where it stands: Journalist James Fallows calls air travel's safety record "an under-appreciated miracle of modern society."

  • "On a statistical basis, being aboard a North American or Western European airliner is about the safest thing you can do with your time," he writes, "compared even with taking a walk or sitting in a chair."

How it works: Precisely because flying is so inherently dangerous, the industry has developed an obsession with safety, as epitomized in the famous reports painstakingly put together after every incident.

  • Writes the NYT's Zeynep Tufekci: "A National Transportation Safety Board investigation report reads like a how-to book for pulling off miracles and achieving seemingly incredible levels of safety. These reports renew one's faith in what humanity can achieve if we apply our brainpower and resources to it."
  • A "but" follows, of course: "these exceptional levels of commercial airline safety require eternal vigilance against the usual foes."

Reality check: Nothing remotely similar exists with regard to auto safety. As David Zipper reports for Slate, auto manufacturers such as Tesla self-certify their vehicles as safe, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to launch and conclude an in-depth investigation before it can intervene and ask for a recall.

Between the lines: Buy-in from the public is crucial. When hundreds of planes were grounded in the wake of the Alaska Airlines incident, causing thousands of flights to be canceled, there were surely grumbles but there was no real opposition, like there was to seatbelt laws or safer streets or mask mandates. No one called loudly for the flights to be reinstated immediately, saying that safety culture had gone too far.

  • Public attitudes toward Boeing track the manufacturer's safety record — unlike, say, attitudes toward Tesla, which has a pretty dismal safety record for both employees and drivers but whose reputation in the public mind is mostly a function of what people think about the company's technology and CEO.

Be smart: The public is so accepting of safety protocols in aviation mainly because flyers want all the reassurance they can get.

  • No one considers banks, say, to be physically dangerous. As a result, if a bank headquarters construction project ends up killing a worker, as recently happened at JPMorgan, there's almost no hit to the institution's reputation.
  • Similarly, working from home is not something people are afraid of. It might well end up causing a significant number of musculoskeletal injuries, but those injuries won't generally redound on employers' reputations.

My thought bubble: Americans are broadly OK with a society where thousands of people are injured or killed daily in preventable ways. Aviation is the honorable exception.

Safety is a choice

Former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill transformed Alcoa during his tenure as CEO by concentrating on safety above everything else.

The logic: As Michael Lewis explained in a 2002 profile, O'Neill's first day as CEO included a speech — "the greatest CEO speech of the 20th century," per one account — saying that worker safety had to be a higher priority than profits, and that anybody found cutting corners on safety would be fired.

  • The idea was, in part, that the focus on safety would demonstrate to the company's workers that it actually cared about them, which in turn would persuade those workers to cooperate in necessary cost-cutting measures.
  • O'Neill's strategy worked: Alcoa's profits rose from $4.8 million in 1993 to $1.5 billion in 2000.

Lewis writes: "To give you an idea of what he achieved, Treasury Department employees, most of whom don't do much but sit at desks, missed work because of injury 20 times as often as Alcoa employees, most of whom work with molten lava and man-eating machinery."

Between the lines: As O'Neill himself put it, a safety-first culture is one in which, "when a group of people are going down a stairway and there's a handrail, and you're going with the CEO, if the CEO doesn't hold the handrail, you pull on his sleeve or her sleeve and say, hold the handrail. That's what we do here. We all do it."

The bottom line: There's a good chance your CEO has said at some point that in your organization, safety comes first. Almost certainly, that wasn't true.

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